We recently selected our federal leader in an election. We also elect our premiers and mayors. But we don’t get a vote on our leaders at work. The notion that control of an organization or group should be by the majority of its members doesn’t apply in the typical workplace.
I’ve often wondered about that, philosophically and personally. Is democracy only good for something huge or distanced from us?
Even worker-owned companies don’t opt for directly electing the CEO, human resources officers or factory floor supervisors. There might be some elected workers on the board of directors, chosen after a campaign in which candidates expressed their goals and work colleagues made a choice. But the board, as with other non-employee owned companies, chooses the CEO, who then picks the lesser bosses. So the employee-owners aren’t democratically selecting their bosses
As a manager, I’ve wondered would the people choose me if they had a chance to vote? That can lead to all sorts of further rumination: Are they smart enough to choose me? Would elections mean campaigning and watering down my ideas? How divisive would an election be? Would it be a popularity contest? Would an election be a chance to educate them or prod them out of their cynicism so they have to take a stand on what they believe is right for the unit? Can you hold an election for the leader of a department of just two people?
A fear of having workers elect their bosses is that it will dilute the organization’s effectiveness. Employees will favour easy-going bosses and the status quo, rather than the constant change that is presumed healthy for them. But some consulting and law firms have the partners choose the managing partner, a form of workplace democracy. And it generally works well.
Few amongst us haven’t had a moment when we have seen a colleague promoted who lacks the skills to be a manager. “Why didn’t they consult us?” we wonder about management. That, of course, is the nub of the argument for workplace democracy or, at least, some involvement. People know their colleagues. They will select better leaders and everyone – as well as the bottom line – will benefit.
Five common biases in the workplace
A strategy for doing your best work when you’re at your best self
Silicon Valley-based consultant Ed Batista addressed this recently, looking at when a senior leader needs to bring in a new manager to replace a departing official or for an entirely new role. The leader needs to decide what role their current employees will play in the hiring process.
Perhaps it’s no role. The leader conducts the search, hires the manager and introduces the winner to their employees. “In some circumstances this makes sense – typically when there’s an urgent need to fill the role and the leader lacks faith in the employees’ judgment. But I see this very rarely, in large part because the leaders in my practice value their employees’ input and don’t want them to become flight risks if they feel disregarded or are unhappy with the new manager,” he writes on his blog.
At the other extreme, the leader plays a minimal role. They delegate the search to one or more employees, ask them to identify several candidates, and may even empower them to make the hire. He says that when the employees are viewed as mission-critical to the organization and possess specialized expertise necessary to assess a manager that the leader lacks, they should choose.
Between those two extremes, and more common in the situations Mr. Battista has been an advisor, the options are to give employees a voice or a veto. In the voice approach, employees may have opportunities to assess managerial candidates at various stages and provide input to the leader. In the veto route, the leader promises they will not hire a manager over the employees’ objections.
That sounds clear but often it isn’t. He says he finds leaders fail to clarify which approach they’re adopting, leading to employee expectations being dashed. The leader might inadvertently suggest that employees have a veto, when that’s not the intention. Or they might offer employees a veto but later renege.
Obviously leaders need to choose carefully between the options and communicate clearly. He throws out these considerations:
· What specialized expertise might be necessary to assess candidates’ capabilities? To what extent will employees’ expertise be required to conduct this assessment?
· How would I characterize the judgment of these particular employees? Are they willing to support a manager who might challenge them?
· If these employees have concerns about a candidate, how candid will they be with me? And how seriously should I take their concerns?
Those questions offer practical reasons for employees to be involved in selecting new managers. It’s not a democratic impulse but a protective impulse, using employees’ expertise and making them less likely to flee when they learn who the next boss is.
More broadly, a step toward democracy in promotions is in place at Bain & Company. Teams vote on the quality of their leadership every six months and leaders who do not earn the support of their teams cannot be promoted to a position of greater power and authority. If democracy is good enough for the country, maybe it’s good enough for our workplaces.
· Everyone is watching how you respond when a high-performer quits (and listening to what that person is saying about the firm and its leadership). Consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye advise thanking them for their contribution, asking for their ideas, encouraging them to stay connected and giving them a proper chance to say goodbye to colleagues, rather than trying to hide the situation so others don’t also get the idea to depart.
· “Reach out to a team member today” is a nudge Laszlo Bock, CEO of the software HR company Humu, recommends sending out periodically in a hybrid or remote work force to encourage the collaboration of pre-pandemic offices. Also communicate unwritten norms, such as “it’s okay to ask a lot of questions.”
· Executive coach Dan Rockwell says to move from being a manager to a leader you need to manage projects less and develop people more.
Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.